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Are You Protected Against Skin Cancer?

You don't have to stay inside, but here are some basics to avoid skin cancer

A woman applying sunscreen to her husband to protect him from the sunMalignant melanoma is a serious type of cancer that is found mostly in the skin but also (rarely) in other areas of the body. It's one of the less common types of skin cancer but causes the majority of skin cancer-related deaths.

Who can get melanoma?

Anyone can get melanoma regardless of age, sex, or racial origin. There's a common misperception that only fair-skinned individuals can get melanoma. Dark-skinned individuals can also get melanoma, but it happens less frequently.

What are the risk factors for developing melanoma?

People with white skin color, red or blond hair, light blue or green eyes, freckles, and those who have difficulty tanning (never tan or tan minimally) have the highest incidence.

The following factors also increase the risk of melanoma:

  • A large number of moles (the average adult has about 40)

  • Large moles (over 6 inches), present at birth, increase lifetime risk by 6-7 percent

  • History of atypical (dysplastic) moles

  • Personal or family history of melanoma

  • Blistering sunburns

  • Use of tanning devices

What can I do to protect myself from melanoma?

Avoid mid-day sun exposure between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you do spend time in the mid-day sun, wear clothing to cover as much of your skin as possible or apply sunscreen with broad-spectrum coverage (UVA and UVB) 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapply every 2 hours and immediately after swimming to bare skin. Wear a hat with a 3-inch brim that goes all the way around, long sleeves, and long pants. Seek shade when possible. Do not sunbathe or use tanning beds. Sunless tanning lotions and sprays are safe to use if you wish to appear tanned. Don't forget to protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses.

What do I look for when checking my skin?

Check your skin once a month, looking for unusual new moles or changes in existing ones. Use mirrors to see your back, or have someone check for you. The A, B, C, D, E's of melanoma serve as a guide in examining skin lesions:

  • Asymmetry means that one side of the mole is a different shape than the other side.

  • Border is the outline of a mole. It should be sharp and regular.

  • Color of moles should be an even tone throughout the mole.

  • Diameter refers to the size of the mole measured through the center. Moles larger than a pencil eraser should be checked.

  • Evolving means that a mole that has looked the same for years is changing in any of the above A, B, C, D's, or that a flat mole is now raised, or has started itching.

Melanomas are frequently found by a spouse or friend. If someone tells you that a spot on your skin looks funny, it's a good idea to see your doctor and have it checked. If you're a Veteran patient, this can start with a Secure Message (sign in required) to your health care team.

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Read More

Preventing Skin Cancer (Veterans Health Library)

Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Risk of Melanoma (National Cancer Institute)

Facts about Sunscreens (American Academy of Dermatology)

Updated May 4, 2021